The Three Sisters—corn, beans, and squash—is a form of Indigenous sustainable agriculture that involves the practice of intercropping or companion planting, where plants are grown next to each other for mutual benefit. This Indigenous sustainable agricultural practice invites environmental stewardship, increases the quality of life of Indigenous Peoples, and helps communities to achieve food sovereignty.
Environmental stewardship is a key component to Indigenous sustainable agriculture; it involves the “responsible use and protection of the environment,” which includes “ limiting the harvest of natural resources.” The Three Sisters is a form of environmental stewardship because they “support growth without requiring fertilizers, pesticides, equipment or intense irrigation.” The plants support each other in unique ways. The corn stalks provide support to the beans, and the plants exchange nitrogen with the soil to facilitate growth. The squash, planted between the beans and corn, and their leaves, cover and protect the soil, to stop weeds from propagating. It is reported that the Three Sisters thrive better together than if each of the corn, beans, and squash were planted on their own. Together, they also deter pests. EcoWatch provides instructions for how to grow a Three Sisters Garden.
The quality of life of Indigenous Peoples is improved through the Three Sisters. Once used heavily by Indigenous Peoples in the Great Lakes region of North America, the Three Sisters, as a model of sustainable agriculture, holds the potential to offer business opportunities and a sustainable food source for Indigenous communities in ways that connect these communities to their own cultural traditions. In addition, the Three Sisters are rich in minerals and vitamins to “support community health and quality of life.” Currently, Indigenous communities are working with researchers from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) to explore how and why the Three Sisters’ model is especially successful.
Promoting local food production is crucial to Indigenous food sovereignty and long-term food security. As a traditional form of intercropping, the Three Sisters also produces a high agricultural food yield (i.e., average energy measured in kCal and grams of protein per unit of farmland per year). According to research conducted by Dr. Jane Mt. Pleasant (Cornell University, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences), “The Three Sisters yields more energy (12.25 x 106 kcal/ha) and more protein (349 kg/ha) than any of the crop monocultures or mixtures of monocultures planted to the same area.”
Indigenous farmers could benefit from a network of peers who engage in indigenous sustainable farming and gardening year-round, through large-and-small-scale farms, community gardens, and greenhouses. The potential for such a network to facilitate information exchange, knowledge sharing, and advocacy to promote Indigenous agricultural practices is one that is worth exploring. The Three Sisters is just one example of Indigenous sustainable agriculture, rooted in regional knowledge, Indigenous traditions, and cultural experiences. Other examples of Indigenous sustainable agricultural practices across Turtle Island could be explored to build a stronger shared understanding of Indigenous approaches to sustainability.
By Leela Viswanathan
Photo Credit: Meritt Thomas, Unsplash